Trying out freestyle leadership - 6 practical approaches

March 15, 2019

Innovative leadership that works in practice

From old to new? When it comes to leadership, one cannot say this is good and that is not; things are more complex than that, and, as we all know, there are no recipes for “getting leadership right”. That said, trailblazers and pioneers do occasionally provide us with inspiration for modern and forward-looking leadership beyond the often-used methods found in management how-to books.

A man is breakdancing in the office
In the new world of work many things are changing and freestyle leadership can make all the difference.

A lot will change in the new world of work: offices, ways of collaborating, organizational forms, leadership styles. While some prefer to cling to methods that have stood the test of time, others are looking for new, and occasionally radical, approaches. What is clear is this: Focusing on either to the exclusion of the other will not do any business any good.

“We urgently need to develop a completely new understanding of management and leadership - freestyle leadership is called for. And this means finding your own ways of doing things and striking the balance that is right for your business, because in the context of leadership there are no blueprints or one-size-fits-all approaches - and this will not change in the future. That said, the inspiration and food for thought provided by pioneers and trailblazers of other companies are often helpful when it comes to finding your own way,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler.

Here are six nuggets of inspiration as to how innovative leadership can be brought to life in practice. We encourage you to give it a try:

1. Fostering digital leadership, but not at all costs

An essential task of executives today is to pay special attention to digitization, help employees develop the required digital skills and prepare the ground for digital transformation. What is needed is cross-company team and project work - and hence collaboration with competitors and start-ups. As digital missionaries, executives have to lead by example and must encourage employees not only not to be afraid of change but also to try out digital applications. Groups such as Siemens, T-Mobile or VW organize hackathons, i.e. open coding competitions, on a regular basis. Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) cooperate with Kussbus, a Luxembourg-based start-up, in the context of a Postbus project. Vienna Insurance Group recently formed its first corporate start-up, “viesure innovation center”, which bundles digital services.

Caution: One's own love of technology can lead to a lack of understanding regarding employees who need a little more time to learn new skills and adapt. Overtaxing employees and putting pressure on them does not help much. What does help, though, is using gamification approaches, keeping tools simple and focusing on just a few innovations that really matter.

Trying out freestyle leadership - 6 practical approaches
The manager as a digital missionary should lead the employees into digitization without exerting too much pressure. Photo © CC0 Licence

2. Boosting agility by means of OKRs

The so-called objectives and key results (OKRs) developed by Intel co-founder Andy Grove can help make work processes more efficient. This objectives-performance model is already used by, for instance, Twitter, Netflix and Zalando as well as many DAX companies and medium-sized businesses. It is based on the idea that executives and employees agree, on a quarterly basis, on short-term objectives that are transparent for everybody involved, which, in turn, results in faster decision making and improved goal orientation, communication and efficiency.

Caution: It goes without saying that OKRs, like any other approach, have their pros and cons. But here in particular executives are well advised to think carefully about what makes sense as far as the business models of their companies are concerned. The essential thing is to strike the right balance between long-term considerations that provide guidance and short-term objectives that can quickly be adapted to constantly changing realities.

3. Letting people make the most of their strengths

Positive leadership is a solution-oriented approach from the field of positive psychology. It is about potential-oriented, people-centered leadership that puts the vision and values of the company center stage. Executives focus in particular on the individual strengths of employees, on helping them achieve flow, on giving them a sense of purpose and on fostering their commitment. Moreover, they put great emphasis on talent and team development. The individual development and participation of each and every employee are of central importance. Furniture behemoth Ikea is one prime example of this kind of leadership.

Caution: “Positive” is not meant to suggest that there must not be any conflicts anymore but rather that open communication needs to be actively fostered. What is more: Focusing so much on employees, can easily cause one to pay insufficient attention to products and customers.

Picture of a team at work arguing over something
Positive leadership does not mean having no conflicts anymore, but promoting communication. Photo © CC0 Licence

4. Taking advantage of all dimensions

More often than not, people reduce leadership to the traditional executive-employee relationship. A recent research project in Germany saw the development of synergetic leadership, a new model for leading teams that is based on successful as well as unsuccessful team projects. The model's basic assumption is that, ideally, executives focus on the team as a system, that is on team building, the distribution of roles and tasks; resources, team performance and the reflection on collaboration. Studies have revealed that teams work more effectively when executives define and structure tasks and processes. Teams that work in a self-organized manner are more creative and more innovative.

Caution: It is important to always pay attention to employees individually; otherwise, one can easily fail to notice when somebody becomes emotionally detached from his or her work or feels utterly demotivated.

5. Being a mindful leader - less is more

Generally speaking, people tend to associate mindfulness with meditation classes and yoga courses. Offering these things in a corporate setting may indeed help employees reduce stress, but in the context of leadership mindfulness is a much broader concept. It means to be mindful in one's actions on a daily basis and to constantly question one's attitude towards employees. Being mindful in what we think and do not only helps us address highly complex issues with greater clarity but also increases our empathy towards others. One of the pioneers of mindful leadership is Bodo Janssen, CEO of Upstalsboom, a Frisian hotel chain. Following a retreat to a monastery, he began to build mindfulness into his approach to leadership. Working in a purpose-driven, independent manner and being appreciative is what his corporate values revolve around.

Caution: Being mindful does not give one carte blanche to increase the workload employees have to cope with.

Picture of a woman doing yoga
Offering employees opportunities to reduce stress is a good step, but mindful leadership means practicing mindfulness in daily activities. Photo © CC0 Licence

6. Ensuring people are fully engaged and not just part of the game

Giving employees a say can boost their intrinsic motivation - provided they feel heard and seen, and their ideas and opinions really do matter. New work pioneers are illustrating how far this can actually go. Einhorn, a Berlin-based condom start-up gives its employees a say in matters relating to compensation and leave. And premium Cola, a beverages maker from Hamburg, even lets suppliers, clients and end customers have their say in business decisions via the outfit's Intranet.

Caution: For participation to work, it takes the right culture of discussion and decision making - as well as a great deal of stamina and resolve on the part of executives and employees alike.

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